No Man's Land
by Daniel Callahan
I've seen Them hover. Just when those two Ritalin-laced kids opened
up on the gym class. Just when the enemy went over the top and met us
halfway. Hanging, like Zeppelins, almost immobile, but tense--quivering
somehow in the excitement of it all. Delunas called them the Fallen
Ones. I couldn't help but wonder how They got that name when they stayed
so far up, so far away, but just close enough to receive the transmission.
Enough to know the blood was beginning to flow. Delunas, dangerous enough
to follow his convictions like the bloodhound bastard he was, knelt
as enemy rounds buzzed past our flesh like lead flies. Aimed with an
intuitive scope that I knew he suddenly possessed. If it had been Yandle,
he might have hit one. But that three inch shell dropped twenty feet
from our position, blowing him into that shellhole without a bottom,
and me with it, down into those caves that could not have existed without
a prayer or an ironic curse. Bang to the bottom on a straw mattress,
while the futile fight for inches of mud spilled above our heads. I
wanted to claw up the floor tile from under my desk when the shooting
started down the hall, rip open that second tunnel leading away from
the bullets and whatever They had to gain by our souls being ripped
from their seats and into the thin air.
No tunnel. Not for me, not for any of them unlucky enough to have lived
a life that-step by minute step-brought them to that town, that school,
that wing, at that time, when the bullets danced through their bones
and out into the dead walls. I could just glimpse through the window
I had just opened to allow in the breeze the luminescent reflection
of one of Them, hovering above our sudden-sprung No Man's Land.
They were cannibals, the survivors in the caves. But we, falling through
at a time that seemed, unspoken, to be predestined, were pondered for
a moment, and, with the wave of a pale hand, told to follow. The light
of the torch was enough to see that the man in the lead was a German-no
officer, but one of us-the one behind us a Belgian, the one keeping
us steady as we shuffled down the passage a Brit. Insignia torn from
the faded, moldering, uniforms. As silent as a soundless Judgment Day.
My last look through the hole before another of them slid the duckboard
back in its place was the shimmering gray outline of whatever contained
the Fallen Ones. At that moment, I wished Erazo was with us.
I had forgotten where he was. Not behind either line but just about
to blow the whistle and start the scrimmage when Faragut and Sleaford
pulled those weapons from their gym bags and squeezed their triggers
at no one, and everyone, in particular. I should have known, in fact
I all but knew, Erazo would hit the deck just as the bodies of his students
fell on top of him in wet, twitching wads. Instinct. Not bravery, not
cowardice, just enough kinesthetic remembrance to go face downward.
Wood or mudhole, no difference.
I would have realized, had he been with us, that he was too much like
Delunas for either of them to stay alive. They face the danger. I merely
threw my chair, for once it seemed light, out that window, the one reflecting
Their new visitation, just to kill at least their image, not realizing
my jumping outside to save my own skin would lead my students, following
me into the ditch behind the gravel road, into the trench where I knew
I would, or might, be safe, with twenty gawking adolescents at my heels,
over and down into shin-deep water as Sleaford kicked down the door
to find room 16 empty at just the wrong time. We heard the screams in
room 17 despite the flowing water around our legs, and the screams from
room 18 after he reloaded.
When I realized that Starr Purdue was clutching my jacket like a child
and crying into my arm, I couldn't for that moment remember who I was
or what I had been doing. It all fused in my head, right then, and I
couldn't be sure if I had stopped breathing. I let her cry without a
word or sign of comfort. I thought of the fresh corpse that the cave
soldiers were cooking, a French officer, his head lying in the corner
on a pile of hay. An officer. I knew Erazo would kill Faragut if he
got near him. Only an Erazo or Delunas would try.
I think it was the Captain who first saw Them. Overhead, just before
that push that got four of us killed. The Captain just pointed for a
moment, then packed the rest of his tobacco into his pipe and relit
it. No one said a word, except Yandle, who farted by way of general
commentary. We never found Yandle afterward. Shell, cave, Them-whatever
the cause, he was gone. The Captain ran out of tobacco, and he didn't
even take the stash Yandle left behind. We would take a bullet for an
officer like that. Striggler split it with me and DeBoer. The smoke
seemed like a ghost-but not Yandle's. Not anyone's. The ghost of a moment
in time that gets lodged into eternity, played and replayed ad infinitum
until the energy needed to push one second onto another is finally itself
exhausted. I feel the pulse of that same second syncopated with Purdue's
unrelenting sobs. I wait for either the popping sounds to stop or for
Them to evaporate. It will occur together, as one, only the false hint
of perception dividing them, the apparent division between the two collapsed
onto one point in space and time, without dimension, without even reality.
Erazo, it was him-he told me that nothing is reversible. It only seems
that way. I told DeBoer that, and he seemed to agree, even though he
just shrugged and stalked away. Slorp just stared at me, then the mud.
I saw the Captain nod. I tried to tell this to Purdue, but it didn't
cut through. I realized I was chanting, not speaking, and stopped. Only
Todd Olinger seemed to hear, the first one out the window after me.
He may have spotted Them. I live with the moment as the smoke curls
above us somewhere in Belgium, after Striggler took his first puff.
Todd may have been watching as I lit up, but I didn't want to notice.
My first cigarette. I can stop, I can quit, but I can't go back to that
moment before I sucked it in. Erazo was right, even as he took three
of Faragut's bullets and the shithole Uzi jammed. The bullets could
be removed, the holes could heal, but the flesh never returns to what
it was, nor Erazo, nor Faragut, not the Uzi, melted down after the inquest.
Part of it cast into a hammer, the hammer into a ball-bearing, the ball-bearing
into the link of a chain on a swing that would break not before the
weakest link and not after the strongest. Someone scraped their knees
before the metal is buried in a landfill and lost. I hand the butt to
Todd, but he's comforting Starr.
I know I am still breathing, now. From somewhere underground, I watch
them, Delunas too, too hungry to withstand it, eat what's left of the
officer. I smell garlic. I slump into a corner farthest from the head.
If I remain with them another day, I will be joining them. Somewhere
above the table, They are laughing.
I put my head on my knees and pray for the words that will give me the
words to pray. The Fallen Ones turn away, leaving us in the caves to
erase all differences between us and meat. What stops me-Erazo. Delunas
can never go back. And he doesn't want to. He tears into his meal like
a starving dog. Mad dog. A pistol lies next to me, and I pick it up.
Four rounds in the chambers. I know now, with the pistol like a map
and itinerary, I have to crawl out of the ditch, scamper back into the
school as the shooting, even now, moves north. I hear Todd shout, many
of them joining, shouting at me to stop. I don't want to move with the
cold around my legs, or with Delunas and the others ignoring me. But
I am out. I am over. I don't listen to their shouts. I would fire on
Them, but it would do no good. We watched a Camel nosedive into one,
explode, and leave Them as untouched as Haig. They aren't my problem.
My first shot is for Delunas. He dies as the others continue to eat,
barely looking up from their meal. I leave them. Three left. Through
the exit, I see the bodies. One belongs to Mrs. Edge. She smiles even
now. Erazo is about to reach Faragut. Sleaford reloads. I turn the corner
and find the Captain's body. I nearly faint. He has decayed in No Man's
Land. DeBoer's smoke rings hover just ahead. Library. Sleaford fires
into the rows of books. Thank God it's not the children, still screaming
under the tables and bringing prayer back into this school. I turn,
raise the pistol, and fire. I feel Them twitch. This is not how it's
supposed to be. My shot goes wild as Sleaford sees me and turns, firing,
the bullets sweeping into the Classics and toward me. Until Sleaford
slumps into a pile, his weapon glistening, steaming on the carpet. A
shot came from across the street, through the bay windows. One hell
of a shot. That son of a bitch Yandle. Damn farmer's son. Leaves from
books no student of mine ever read flutter to the floor. Heads appear
from under the heavy oak tables. I feel it. This is another point, without
dimension, infinite in its smallness, containing its chaos in an echo
of eternity. They are worried now.
I have two bullets left. I don't know now who is alive and who is not.
Yandle disappeared on the Salient, but he just fired his last round.
The Captain-some home near Chelsea, '63-outside. There is not time-none.
Even my watch has finally stopped. Starr Purdue has just stopped crying.
Todd Olinger has just started.
"Stay here." They stay; Faragut's still in the gym.
I claw my way out a tunnel leading to the surface. One tries to follow-a
Yank. I manage to kick enough dirt down until he gives up. Once I'm
out of the hole, a shell drops near me. The sky is still gray. Ahead,
They hover, but drawn together, huddled. I race for our lines and drop
down before the enemy can see me. I land on what's left of Slorp. Two
bullets. The mud is up to my knees when I turn and see Erazo break Faragut's
neck. His mouth is bleeding. Not Faragut's-Erazo's. He had Faragut in
a headlock and bit his shoulder to make him drop the gun. He sees me,
smiles, and bends down, hungry, for more. A crack, my third shot, and
Erazo drops like a rabbit. One bullet left.
I hold the pistol in my hand as if it were a sacrament. Just for that
moment, all of time collapses, squeezes me so tight I can't breathe,
and I know They are overhead. The children who can move scatter outside
as the enemy invades our lines. There's so many of them we will be trampled.
Some will get shot in the back. My temple aches for the last bullet,
but as my finger closes to do the job, I turn and straighten my arm.
I fire at the Fallen Ones. I expect no explosions, and I get none, as
Mr. Schickert tackles me from behind. He nearly paralyzes me. He holds
me down as the enemy troops swarm around us, killing the survivors.
I wait my turn, as They prepare to meet their own Day of Judgment: the
day They will have nowhere to hide. I want to tell Schickert, but I
can't. My mouth won't work.
It is Slorp who helps me to my feet. He's all in one piece again, and
he still can't tell a joke to save his life. There's somewhere we've
got to go, to find Yandle, maybe Erazo, and DeBoer, and the Captain,
and Delunas. There's no time to discuss it. I wave to Schickert. He
nods, finally understanding, and joins us. Now, They are afraid.
The enemy pulls back suddenly, to catch their breath, as the school
doors burst open and the rest of the children scatter, some into, some
out of, No Man's Land.